One Page Guides to Card Derivations – Intro

This serves as a brief introduction and documentation to reading and/or printing a series of one-page guides to each of the Waite-Colman Smith minor arcana. The project is still in its early stages. I hope to do two or three each week. This introduction will describe the structure/method of each page. It will also provide a few quick notes regarding the importance of understanding the sources of these divinatory meanings and how they still influence modern tarot readers a century since the introduction of the RWS deck, whether they use that deck or not.

The structure/method of each of the one-pagers will be as follows:

  • Waite’s descriptive text and divinatory meanings appear at the top, taken from his work, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1910).
  • A small thumbnail appears to the right. I suspect that if you’re interested enough to arrive at this page that you have your own RWS deck, so there should be little need to make this bigger.
  • The majority of the page is devoted to a Venn diagram. Each circle represents what I (and I think most others) believe to be the major influences upon tarot divinatory meanings. Not just Waite’s, for he took a great deal from the Golden Dawn’s work in this area.
  • The Venn diagram components are as follows. Astrological influences are at the top. This circle also includes the card assignments associated with the Zodiac and planetary components.
  • The bottom left circle is the classical element associated with the card. Because it’s more likely that most readers are familiar with Astrological qualities but not the alchemical/elemental, a short bit of explanatory text for the element appears in parentheses for each of the latter.
  • The bottom right circle is the Sephirot/Tree of Life emanation assigned for the card by the Golden Dawn group. Note that these texts in the parentheses are quotes from Wikipedia.
  • Arrows link the text contents of the circles to small “post-it note” shapes. The text in these “post-its” is taken directly from the Waite text, except for a few cases in which parenthetical or italicized text points out something related.
  • The overlapping areas are probably self explanatory to anyone who’s ever read a Venn diagram. In some cases, such as the overlap at the top of the Sephirot emanation’s circle where it intersects the top circle, I may include the Golden Dawn’s summary for that card’s esoteric meaning. The Two of Wands, our first entry in the series is a perfect example. It’s short (“Dominion”), it corresponds to the “empire” aspects of the Emperor card in the Astrological circle, and Waite/Colman Smith not only picked it up visually, but quoted it.
  • As a final note on the structure, the PDF files are formatted for a standard letter size page, with extra space at left for anyone who wants to print them and place them in a looseleaf binder. The bitmaps are 200 DPI, which should be good enough to read, but have no margins.

In essence what we’re doing is tracing all or nearly all of Waite’s divinatory meanings, and some of Colman Smith’s illustrative details to a specific influence or influences.

IsleVue Tarot-Zodiac-Element-Sephiroth Wheel of the Golden Dawn

I think that enough has been written regarding the influence of Astrology, Alchemy and Qabalah upon the tarot to not have to justify that they are major influences. In general, tarot experienced a major evolution in Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This article summarizes the history; it also contains our Tarot-Zodiac-Element-Sephiroth-Wheel-of-the-Golden-Dawn. That in turn provides a visual mapping of each influence upon each card. The components of the Venn diagram appear in the wheel, directly connected to the card that the page is about.

In subsequent posts we’ll provide a bit of introductory text for the card with the aim of further describing earlier influences. As an example, if I see something that Éliphas Lévi wrote affected some component of the card, I may mention that in the introduction.

It is my contention that understanding the sources of Waite’s divinatory meanings can make you a better reader. Whether you use the RWS deck or not. A few points… (yes, I know, I sometimes write like a marketing guy who’s done too many PowerPoint presentations. Well, yeah).

  • As we compare the RWS cards to the (severely brief) summaries of the GD divinatory meanings inside the wheel, we see an overwhelming amount of overlap, not just in the written meanings but in Colman Smith’s illustrations.
  • That the RWS deck is the best selling deck over a hundred years later, as well as the fact that many newer decks base their illustrations upon many of the components that Waite and Colman Smith placed there (especially the minor arcana), I think that many of us would acknowledge that RWS is the “default” tarot deck in the English speaking world.
  • Waite added a layer of mystic Christian and Celtic (nationalistic) imagery to the GD divinatory meanings. Modern decks are finally removing them. But I think we can say that just as the GD divinatory meanings served as the foundation for the RWS deck, Waite and Colman Smith’s work served as the foundation for many modern decks. (the way I had stated that in a previous post was “this loose but coherent schema (GD’s work) allowed for the “branching” off of Waite and Colman Smith’s work on the one hand and Aleister Crowley’s work on the other.”
  • When I look through modern tarot references, such as Lo Scarabeo’s Tarot Fundamentals (2015), which attempts (and largely succeeds in my opinion) to be an encyclopedic work covering ten “reference decks,” I am struck by how much of GD’s and Waite’s divinatory meanings are still the standard. For example, as I write this, I am finishing up what will be the second in this series of one-page guides, the Ten of Pentacles. The “Traditional Interpretations” section in the reference summarizes the divinatory meanings of the ten decks. I am struck that though only two of eight illustrations for this card (from among the reference decks) directly derive from Colman Smith’s illustration, the text itself is probably 90% in agreement with Waite’s text. It has been said that if you learn to drive on a stick shift, you can drive almost any car. I think that similarly, if you learn RWS as your first deck, you can read practically any of its “descendants.”

If anyone finds anything in the pages that they feel needs correction, be sure to let me know… you can comment there or send an email. Same goes for suggestions. The pages themselves have a note saying that they’re Creative Commons Attribution licensed, which means you can share them or reprint them as much as you like; you also have to link to the original source for any web based re-publication.

As Arlo Guthrie said…

Obie came in with the twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, sat down. Man came in said, “All rise.” We all stood up, and Obie stood up with the twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures, and the judge walked in sat down with a seeing eye dog, and he sat down, we sat down. Obie looked at the seeing eye dog, and then at the twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, and looked at the seeing eye dog. And then at twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one and began to cry.

Tarot’s kind of like that. Sometimes the cards are like the twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, and we’re the blind judges. Enjoy.


Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie ©1967 Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, The Bicycle Music Company

John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot? 😉

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